Wallabies borrow from All Blacks to close out Wales
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Wallaby glory against Wales came with an All Black twist (AAP Image/Joe Castro)
Mike Harris’ final penalty, a kick for glory to give Australia a 25 – 23 victory over Wales, capped a terrific Test match in which the lead changed sides no fewer than nine times.
The tension as he lined up the kick was unbearable. If he missed the Wallabies would be condemned for the second time in three Tests for not being able to close out a winnable match.
I made a note that at least he was kicking from the right side of the field for a right-foot kicker. But having come on only minutes earlier, after an injured Berrick Barnes had missed his easiest shot of the match, was a strike against him pulling off the kick, you would have thought.
From the media box in Etihad Stadium it was impossible to tell whether he had kicked the ball straight on target. But a huge rushing, roaring cry of ‘Yeeessss!’ resounded around the stadium as the kick was only part way on its journey through the posts.
‘Yeeesss!’ proved the right call as Wallabies rushed from all parts of the field and the benches to give Harris hugs. Grown men, warriors with blood trickling down their faces, in their gold jerseys, were jumping around like kids at a party.
Nearly two hours earlier I had watched the last few minutes of the dramatic New Zealand – Ireland Test at Christchurch. With minutes remaining and the score locked in at 19 – 19 the All Blacks had conceded a scrum just outside their 22. In the last couple of scrums, Ireland had gained an unexpected advantage and were pushing the All Black pack around.
I saw the ARU’s media director Peter Jenkins, who in a previous incarnation was a fine rugby writer for The Daily Telegraph.
“There’s no way the All Blacks are going to get out of this one,” I told him.
Jenkins looked at the screen as the packs began scrumming. ‘They’ll find a way to win,’ he replied.
The scrum collapsed in a whirling mess of green and black jerseys. The referee Nigel Owens who’d been having a bit of a running verbal battle with Richie McCaw most of the match blew an extra-shrill blast on the whistle. Penalty to Ireland?
No, a penalty against Ireland for wheeling the scrum illegally.
It is history now that minutes later, with time almost up, Dan Carter booted over a dropped goal, his third attempt of the match, to confirm the truism that the All Blacks do finds ways, Test after Test, to win the close matches.
Now flash forward to the closing minutes of the Australia – Wales match.
It is the 73rd minute, the score is Australia 22 – Wales 23. Barnes misses a kick in front of the posts and about 40m out. Before the failed kick Barnes had limped around with what seemed like a cramp.
He is replaced by Mike Harris.
Here is how the ARU media unit gives the count down to the end of the match:
“74th minute Penalty to Wales – kick for touch. 75th Knock on Wales – scrum Australia. 78th Knock on by Australia – play on. 79th Knock on by Australia – play on. 80th Penalty to Australia – kick for touch. 80th Penalty to Australia – kick at goal. 80th Penalty attempt by Mike Harris successful: Australia 25 – Wales 23.”
What these details don’t tell us is what actually happened. One of those knock-ons came from Harris pushing a pass under the Wales goal posts. Why the Wallabies didn’t set themselves for a dropped goal is a matter that defies understanding.
The scrum from which the penalty to the Wallabies came from was not too far outside their own 22. Like the All Blacks, the Wallabies were facing a defeat with Wales in the position to close out the Test with a dropped goal, try or a penalty.
This last possibility was very much alive as Ben Alexander had conceded two scrum penalties within minutes of coming on to the field. The Wallabies scrum was under pressure from Wales for most of the second half.
A Welsh journalist asked me at this point to confirm that it is 43 years since Wales last defeated the Wallabies in Australia. ‘Correct,’ I told her.
The excellent New Zealand referee, Chris Pollock, blows his whistle. Penalty. Game over for the Wallabies it seems to me. But the penalty is given against Wales. Some crafty dropping of the scrum to fool the referee has backfired.
Then Harris pulls off his first great kick. A long punt that takes play well into the half of Wales. In all the jubilation and analysis after the match the length and accuracy of this punt and how it put the Wallabies in a strong position to win the Test has been overlooked.
Now David Pocock’s captaincy comes under scrutiny. The obvious play is to take the lineout off the top and smash up the field until within drop kick range. But the Wallabies do a surprising thing. They drive from the lineout. I say this is surprising because it’s a tactic they rarely use and when they do, it’s generally nullified easily.
But this drive is a perfect one and rumbles on. Digby Ioane, who has the instinct of a loose forward rather than a winger, sees that it is making progress but slowing a bit. He races across the field, puts his shoulder into the heaving pack and the maul lurches forward. Then it tumbles in a heap.
Pollock blows the whistle. Penalty to Australia.
David Lord reports in his The Roar piece on the Test on Sunday that Pocock then goes up to Harris and tells him: ‘We’ll love you if you hit it, or miss it.’
And he hits it!
The reason why I believe that the call for the drive was great captaincy is that Pocock gave his side several options of getting some points. If the driving maul was pulled down, as it was in fact, the Wallabies had the chance to kick the winning penalty.
If they had to play the ball from a stopped maul, they had the chance to hit up a couple of times, win an offside or hands in the ruck penalty. If Wales remained resolute they then had the final option of the dropped goal.
This clarity of thinking is something that doesn’t normally come so quickly in the career of a captain, as it has with Pocock. McCaw has it but he has been a Test captain for many years. In fact, he showed a similar clarity, as the All Blacks faced their moment of truth with a 5m scrum under Ireland’s posts right on time.
A solid scrum saw the All Blacks hold the ball for a second or so in the hope of getting an off-side penalty. Then McCaw, playing at number 8, drove forward.
At the time I thought, ‘what is all this about?’ But, of course, he was trying to force another penalty. And when Ireland stayed on-side, the ball was shoveled back to Carter to boot the winning goal.
This matter of having a zen-like belief that the victory will come if the right things are done patiently, correctly and without rushing is a hallmark of the great captain. McCaw has it. I’m inclined to think that Pocock has it, too.
He made mistakes under pressure in his first outing as captain against Scotland. Essentially he did not follow the iron-clad law of Test rugby, especially in a low-scoring Test, of ‘Take The Points.’
I was told, too, by people close to the Wallabies that Pocock has not regarded himself as a stand-in, interim captain. He has laid down the law to even the senior players when he felt this was necessary.
So here is a fearless prediction. By the time James Horwill comes back into the Wallabies as a much-needed, driving second-rower, Pocock will have established himself as the long-term Wallaby captain.
When I was thinking about how the All Blacks and the Wallabies did a sort of Houdini trick of getting out of their Tests with wins when it looked for all the world as if they were gone and locked into a defeat, the thought came to me that there was another dimension to the evening’s results.
A New Zealand-bred and trained player, with only a handful of minutes of Test experience to his name, kicked the winning goal. The coach of the Wallabies learnt all his rugby in New Zealand. To give all this a further international aspect, the captain of the Wallabies learnt his early rugby in Zimbabwe and South Africa.
But on Saturday night they were proud Wallaby players and a coach who might, perhaps, have taken the Wallabies into the realm of being able to close out victories the way the All Blacks have for so many years.
Spiro Zavos, a founding writer on The Roar, was long time editorial writer on the Sydney Morning Herald, where he started a rugby column that has run for nearly 30 years. Spiro has written 12 books: fiction, biography, politics and histories of Australian, New Zealand, British and South African rugby. He is regarded as one of the foremost writers on rugby throughout the world.
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